December 18, 2020

Celebrating the Worker Bees in Nature and Our Own Organizations

As a living system, nature holds many lessons we can apply to our organizations. Ants and bees, for example, both provide excellent models of problem-solving and teamwork.

While serving as a worker bee might not seem as glamorous as being queen, it is the worker bee collective, operating as a single organism, that ensures a successful hive. Bees represent highly efficient cross-training at its finest. Before graduating to food gatherers, bees work their way through all jobs in a hive. In crisis situations, they can lend an experienced hand to any role necessary. Meanwhile, the queen embodies true servant leadership: Her role is simply to lay eggs and create more worker bees. All hail the worker bees!

What the Ants and Bees Can Teach Us

Ants have a remarkable synergy within their colonies. When an ant departs its anthill in search of food, it leaves a trail of pheromones to help it find its way home. If it finds food while it forages, it strengthens the trail when returning. As other ants exit the colony, they pick up on the scent immediately and know instinctively that this trail leads to food.

There’s no need for micromanagement and no need for oversight on specific tasks. It’s not only a chosen few ants whose job it is to find food. All ants seek sustenance, and they’re given the freedom to explore until they’ve achieved this goal. You’ve probably seen this dynamic at work if you’ve ever seen a trail of ants at a picnic.

Bees have a similar way of communicating and working together for the well-being of the hive. In the book Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley describes how bees communicate the locations of good sources of nectar and suitable places to construct new hives.

When beehives begin swarming, the colony needs a new home. Bees share and accept this problem inherently. Once it has been announced, the problem-solving begins. Scout bees leave the hive in search of new sites. When they find a place they feel is a good candidate, they return to the hive and perform a special dance that guides the other bees in the direction of the location, so they can see it for themselves. This dance of the scout bees encourages other bees to join in the assessment. As other bees approve of the site, they return to the hive and join the dance. This continues until the bees have all reached a consensus.

If Bees and Ants Do It, Why Can’t We?

I’m certainly not suggesting we start dancing in our meetings (although this could be fun!) or leaving scents all over the place. But acting like a colony of ants or bees could help us solve problems more effectively.

What if you had a problem that needed an immediate solution from your team? Imagine walking into your company’s cafeteria, telling them about the challenge, and leaving it to them to find viable solutions.

Right away, your team starts moving, tackling individual tasks and working together to solve the problem.

One week later, your team returns to the cafeteria to present ideas and brainstorm further upon them to arrive at the ultimate solution, which can then be adopted and set in motion. The next time you have a challenge, you return to the cafeteria and begin the process again.

If bees and ants, on limited brain power, can self-organize to solve problems and locate resources like this, we too can harness self-organization for the greater good of our companies.

You might wonder why, unlike bees and ants, we don’t “naturally” default to this behavior in the first place. We humans have consciousness, bigger brains, and a greater capacity to care for something bigger than our insect friends do. We also have a tendency to overcomplicate situations and limit ourselves by creating hierarchies, too much supervision, and unnecessary micromanagement. All of this only serves to stymie active engagement from our teams and employees.

Simply put, the innate human desire to control others often gets in the way of our employees’ ability to self-organize like ants and bees. But we need only look to nature for living examples of how other species get it done. As leaders, we must take these lessons to heart and enact them within our organizations.

If you are a leader, I issue you a challenge: Let your team find the next solution to a problem you face. Truly let go and allow them to problem-solve on their own. If everyone is curious and open-minded, you might find some brilliant, formerly overlooked ways to solve even your biggest challenges!

Dr. Kathleen Allen is a thought leader, author, and trusted advisor. She is the author of Leading From the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World. 

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Thought leader, author, and trusted advisor Dr. Kathleen Allen helps organizations and individuals create meaningful change using nature as a model for more effective leadership practices. Dr. Allen's clients include internationally renowned nonprofits and foundations, growing businesses, and collaborative networks. She is the author of the popular book "Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today's World." For more information, visit